Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young: Labour leader gambles in opposing trade deal

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Anti-TPP policy is strongly favoured by unions and caucus left.
Labour says the TPP undermines New Zealand's sovereignty. Illustration / Guy Body
Labour says the TPP undermines New Zealand's sovereignty. Illustration / Guy Body

Three guesses who Labour's trade spokesman is ...

David Shearer? No, foreign affairs (at least he still was last night).

Grant Robertson? No, finance.

Phil Goff? No, defence.

All three having been talking trade this week, but no.

Three more guesses.

David Parker? No, he was it when David Cunliffe was leader.

Clayton Cosgrove? No, he was it when David Shearer was leader.

Maryan Street? No, she was it when Phil Goff was leader, and is out of Parliament anyway.

Get the picture?

No wonder Labour's messages have been anything but clear.

It is in fact Dunedin MP and former reverend David Clark, and has been since last November in Andrew Little's first-anniversary reshuffle.

But the Trans-Pacific Partnership is far too major an issue at present to be handled by Clark.

For the next few months, Little himself and Robertson will be de facto trade spokesmen.

On National's side, too, Steven Joyce is doing the heavy lifting instead of the new Trade Minister, Todd McClay.

This past week, without doubt, has been Little's worst week as leader.

It began with uncertainty over Labour's TPP position and ended in disunity.

I wrote last week that this will be the year we see whether Little has merely papered over the cracks in Labour or if he has plastered over them to make them watertight.

I didn't realise we'd get the answer so quickly. It's definitely a paper job so far.

It has hardly been an ideal run-up to his state-of-the nation speech tomorrow in Albert Park, Auckland.

Labour says the TPP undermines New Zealand's sovereignty.

Goff's interview with me undermines Labour's arguments.

Little has made a huge call in recommending to his caucus that the party should oppose the TPP and the signing next week.

It has been a policy, however, that may have been hard to resist.

It was strongly supported by the unions that elected Little leader, and by the caucus left that wanted Robertson to be leader.

It is an issue that pits Little against John Key on a trust-me basis.

It is an issue that pits Little against John Key on a trust-me basis when Little has yet to build up his own bank of political capital.

It means his party has ended the bipartisan approach to free trade that has effectively operated since the fourth Labour Government started removing tariffs.

Labour has taken a gamble in dispensing with the prevailing orthodoxy.

With four of the last six Labour leaders supporting TPP, it makes Little's sales job to the public all the harder.

But Little and his advisers must have calculated that Labour will make net gains from its new position.

It's very hard to see how, but there are some possibilities.

The campaign against TPP is not just around the signing in Auckland next week; it will run the course of the parliamentary process for the national interest analysis (NIA) and related legislation.

It is clearly not just a campaign against TPP; it is a campaign against National, using TPP as the totem.

The aim of the campaign is not just to highlight the flaws in TPP but to use it as a rallying point throughout the year, to build a movement against the Government and its friends in big business.

By joining the Greens and New Zealand First on TPP, Labour will cement its relationships with prospective coalition partners.

Labour needs to become the natural ally of New Zealand First to regain the Government benches.

The campaign won't stop the TPP laws being passed in New Zealand - law changes which will take effect only if and when TPP enters into force in two years.

But if it is not passed in the United States this year, the left in New Zealand will be able to claim a victory of sorts.

So just how outrageously does the TPP undermine New Zealand's sovereignty? Not much, according to Goff.

All international agreements, including New Zealand's membership of the International Labour Organisation and the World Trade Organisation, place restrictions on members and the ultimate sovereignty, to withdraw membership, is retained.

Trade deals are about liberalisation. They don't say: "We want freer trade and freer investment but, by the way, we reserve the right for our opponents to reverse that in a couple of years."

Labour's two main objections are that there is no special provision for it to impose a ban on house sales to foreigners and that overseas companies and governments will be able to make written submissions on proposed laws or regulations that affect them.

As Goff pointed out this week, it would have been better to have the exception on house sales.

But was it really reckless negligence not to include an exception that has never been part of New Zealand law?

As Goff pointed out, a future Labour Government will still be able to stop foreigners from buying houses but it will have to do it with existing law, eg, applying a tax of any amount on foreigners buying houses in New Zealand - 100 per cent shoulddo it.

And in fact there is nothing in the TPP that could stop Labour passing any law it wanted. It would have to face the consequences - a possible dispute with a disappointed house buyer.

The concerns Little and Robertson have expressed about the possible influence of outsiders on New Zealand's laws or regulations is harder to fathom from Labour.

It is straight out of the Evil Multinationals and US Bullies chapter of the Alliance manifesto.

It chooses to see New Zealand as a potential victim when it comes to having to consult over laws affecting other parties or allowing submissions to be made rather than, for example, an opportunity for the likes of Fonterra or New Zealand to oppose the protectionist subsidies in the next US farm bill.

It is not unusual for a country that is making law changes that affect other countries to consult.

We would expect to be treated this way if another country was making laws that affect New Zealand.

Being required to consult is not a loss of sovereignty.

Unless Labour can make a better case for its outrage, its gamble to oppose the TPP could backfire.

- NZ Herald

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Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor, a job she has held since 2003. She is responsible for the Herald’s Press Gallery team. She first joined the New Zealand Herald in 1988 as a sub-editor after the closure of its tabloid rival, the Auckland Sun. She switched to reporting in 1991 as social welfare and housing reporter. She joined the Herald’s Press Gallery office in 1994. She has previously worked as a journalism tutor at Manukau Technical Institute, as member of the Newspapers in Education unit at Wellington Newspapers and as a teacher in Wellington. She was a union nominee on the Press Council for six years.

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